The Tony Awards are the American Theatre Wing’s awards to celebrate excellence in theatre on Broadway. They were named after one of the most dynamic leaders of the Wing, Antoinette Perry, who passed away shortly before the first event. This took place in April of 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
At the time, Vera Allen had taken over as chairwoman of the Wing. She presided over the event and ensured that the Grand Ballroom was worthy of the occasion. Aside from a program of entertainment, there was also a full dinner and dancing at the first ever Tony Awards. It was attended by over 1000 guests.
The First Tony Awards
In 1947, there were seven categories for winners and eight special awards presented to recipients. One of those special awards actually went to Vincent Sardi for his restaurant that is so intrinsically linked to Broadway thanks to its fine menu and the location on West 44th Street. Other winners included Ingrid Bergman, Arthur Miller, Agnes de Mille, Helen Hayes, Jose Ferrer, Elia Kazan and Patricia Neal.
The inaugural event was suitably star studded on the performance side as well, with the likes of Herb Shriner, David Wayne, Mickey Rooney and Ethel Waters all performing on stage. The affair was black tie optional, but reportedly everyone did dress up suitably for the occasion and people have been doing so ever since.
The First Live Broadcast
Over the next 18 years, the event continued to grow in success. It became one of the must-attend highlights of the theater scene in New York. The organizing team continued to team up with hotels and host the event in ballrooms. In 1956, the Tony Awards were broadcast locally for the very first time. This was done by Channel 5 and only went out to people living in the area.
In 1967, things changed dramatically as the first ever broadcast on network television went live. The Wing partnered with The Broadway League and Alexander H. Cohen produced the show. They moved from their traditional hotel setting into the Shubert theater to better accommodate the filmed nature of the event. There was a celebratory gala after the hour-long broadcast, which kept some of the original feel of the Tony Awards.
The Award-Winning Awards Show
Under Cohen’s watchful eye, the event turned into one of the biggest television spectacles on air. He stayed in control for twenty years before retiring. In order to replace his loss, the Wing and the League formed Tony Awards Productions in order to keep up the high standards – even winning several Emmy Awards in the process, which must have felt like winning big when you play slots games online.
During Cohen’s tenure, he struck up a partnership with CBS in 1978 and the network has been carrying the television rights and broadcasting responsibility ever since. Originally, PBS broadcast a one-hour portion of the show that covered 10 awards and CBS then broadcast the rest. In 2003, CBS took over the full broadcast and has three hours dedicated to the event each year.